REMEMBERING BILLIE HOLIDAY
Columbia Records/Courtesy Neal Peters Collection
This April marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Billie Holiday, the recording artist fondly known as “Lady Day.” Known as much for her demons as her pioneering jazz vocals, Holiday is a member of both the Grammy and the Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.
In “Lady Day: A Major American Musician and Recording Artist of the Twentieth Century,”Jacqueline Birdsong-Johnson cites Holiday’s voice as nothing short of groundbreaking. “Prior to jazz ensemble recordings with Billie as lead vocalist,” she explains, “jazz artists were only envisioned to be instrumentalists.”
Holiday’s voice, unique phrasings, and fearless innovation changed that. As Holiday’s fame grew, Birdsong-Johnson notes, she used a unique combination of blues and jazz elements to create a new type of vocal—one that had a lasting impact due to over 350 recordings that showcased her vocal style and raised the profile of jazz worldwide.
In contrast, Farah Jasmine Griffin uses Holiday as a lens through which to view the writings of Amiri Baraka, who wrote a series of texts about Holiday as a mysterious, contradictory fellow poet. Griffin cites Holiday as a sort of “artistic ancestor” of Baraka, tracking his responses to Holiday as he moves from mere description to inspiration. “If she is tragic on one side, she is all hipness, flipness, and flirtation on the other,” writes Griffin. “…her individual, personal tragedy is a collective, historical tragedy of black people. Holiday is the figure through which the weight of this collective history is expressed.”